Jim Harrison 1937-2016
I’ve been haunted this week by the death of Jim Harrison, whom I’ve described for years as my favorite living writer and whose books I bought as soon as they came out, without reading a review or glancing through them. Only once did he let me down. I’ve wondered specifically if The Ancient Minstrel is his final statement, or if there’s more to come.
I reread the title novella this week, wondering if it held clues to his recent life, since he billed it as a false memoir, like the novel Wolf. He claimed that he and his wife had separated, though they spent a fair amount of time together, made love a couple of times. She’d asked him to give up drinking anything but wine, and he had not complied (though he restricted himself to shooters). He was shocked by the loss of his sexuality, by which he seemed to mean his wish to pick up women in bars; that sounded to me like (finally) the dawn of wisdom. He bought a three hundred pound sow on an impulse one night at a bar, and much of the novella is about his new career as a pig farmer, which he seemed to love.
Did Jim Harrison buy that pig? is my latest koan.
The typical Jim Harrison character blunders through life, eating and drinking too much, fucking too much and too carelessly (I was disturbed when a character in The Case of the Howling Buddhas took his own life because he was tormented by his intemperate sex life, by his inability—even in his late sixties—to curb it). This character reached its apogee in Brown Dog, about whom Harrison wrote six novellas and who was for true Harrison fans a sentimental favorite, the man the creator would have been with no restraints whatsoever. Harrison presented himself to interviewers as a disciplined artist, who wrote every day from 6:30 to 2:00 and didn’t have his first drink until 4:00. That doesn’t sound like Brown Dog, or even The Ancient Minstrel. Makes you wonder what part is memoir and what part false.
I wonder about all the girls in particular. His characters fool around extensively, yet he was married to a beautiful woman who was obviously important to him. What did she think of all the fooling around (if he did it)? What did she think about his writing about it? In The Ancient Minstrel there’s a scene where she tails (pardon the expression) him and one of his girlfriends as they drive off to a secluded spot, then fires a revolver outside the car while they’re going at it, inspiring the girlfriend to dash out with no pants on. She returns with mosquito bites all over her butt. This sounds more like Brown Dog than one of our greatest novelists. And I found Sunderson’s conquest of a fifteen year old in Howling Buddhas to be frankly unbelievable. Young women are attracted to someone who looks like this?
There’s a fair amount of discussion about his greatest books. Dwight Garner has a soft spot for the early novels. Emily Bingham consulted supposed experts in compiling her list. I’m partial to the character Dalva, so I would first suggest that novel and its sequel, The Road Home. Legends of the Fall was the first of the three novella volumes and the book that made him famous; I have a friend who reads the title novella every year (the film Revenge from the story in that book is the best single movie made from his work, followed by Carried Away, based on the novel Farmer. The film of Legends of the Fall is dreadful). I found every novella volume superb as I read them. The Raw and the Cooked collected his food essays, which have to be read to be believed. The Shape of the Journey pulls together a huge amount of his poetry; my favorite section is After Ikkyu, because I love that great Zen poet. I would almost say that, until The Great Leader, Harrison’s unfortunate foray into mystery writing, you can’t miss. There’s been a falling off in the last five or six years, but until then you can start almost anywhere.
Harrison practiced Zen and wrote about it twice; the essay “Everyday Life: The Question of Zen” is included in Just Before Dark. He begins with a poignant statement that I’ve always loved: “I often think that because I am quite remote up here in northern Michigan from others who practice, and am intensely stubborn, I learn so slowly that I will be dead before I learn very much.” But he seems to have learned plenty. “I began to understand that the period of zazen that lays the foundation for the day is meant to grow until it swallows both the day and the night.” He continues with some statements that relate practice to his writing. “The hardest thing for me to accept was that my life was what it was every day. This seemed to negate notions of grandeur . . . The turnaround came when an interviewer asked me about the discipline that I used to be productive. It occurred to me at that moment that discipline was what you are every day, how conscious you are willing to be.”
I think Harrison’s true greatness is how conscious he was willing to be, also how he was able to transmit that willingness into his work, like no other writer I’ve ever read. The great thing about any Jim Harrison work, the overwhelming thing, is the texture of life on every page. We see life as we would like to live it, not the excesses (though we imagine they would be nice) but the intense delight his characters take in small things, taking the dogs out for a walk, sighting a new bird, rubbing the belly of a baby pig. Brown Dog, in his own way, was as involved in his life as Dalva was in hers. I admire her more, but love to read about him.
Harrison once said that when he was young and feeling down he read Henry Miller to resume a certain zest for life. Harrison serves that purpose for me. I sometimes think I could sit down and read through his entire oeuvre, all thirty volumes or whatever it is, then do it again. I could live out my days that way. I don’t think I’d ever be bored. Apart from all the excesses, the stumbles and the gaffes, he’s showing us how to live.
As he does in his other Zen essay, “Sitting Around,” from the Fall 1993 issue of Tricycle. “One of my amusements is to try to find and follow black bears, which have always been a dharma gate for me, aside from being bears. Black bears aren’t remotely as dangerous as grizzlies, but it is best to be in a state of total attention because, frankly, the bear is. We want to fully inhabit the earth while we are here and not lose our lives to endless rehearsals and illusions. Perhaps my sitting is more like that of an addled bird, but the bear is always out there, not calling to me, just a bear.”
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